Uncomfortable truths

16 April 2019

Grace Patrick explores the blistering realities of Things We Do Not Know

Everything here is real.

Everything here is true.

The words come directly from the lives that people woke up to this morning and that they will return to tomorrow.

It would be pretty easy to argue that this is some of the most tangible and deeply weighing responsibility that a theatre maker can work with: in this case, the words aren’t just true, but deeply imbued with a pain and a loss of choice that most people cannot possibly understand.

An element of this production which left me at least a little uncomfortable was the decision to attempt, in places, the accents and inflections in the original testimonies. They didn’t seem accurate enough to add to the retelling, and at times they felt closer to detracting from the words. The sections of this that I felt worked the best were actually the ones in which the cast weren’t trying to 'be' the women who gave the testimonies. By obviously reading from a sheet or giving priority to the original recording, it felt closer to an act of bearing witness rather than a reenactment. The reason for this is that I genuinely can’t see how anybody could get that right, not just because it’s a life experience so removed from that of most people, but because the depths of trauma and emotion are so significant that it feels better to just let the words speak for themselves.

There are three different perspectives in this piece, often straining against one another. There are the sex workers, their clients and the charity One25, all of whom have different angles, experiences and bodies of knowledge (to a certain extent). Personally, I appreciated the idea of including the rationale of the clients. It’s easy to let them remain faceless, but it seems necessary to offer us at least some of the thinking that sex workers find themselves up against.

The moments of more physical storytelling were intriguing, especially the almost ritualistic series of movements which seems to represent some kind of torch-passing from one actor to the next. The more abstract approach to interacting with the testimonies seemed like a quiet way to express a lot of complex things, not least to remind the audience over and over again that these are actors telling other people’s stories, not actors playing other people. This is literally the suspension of disbelief. I found myself having to remind myself that it’s real.

The show’s final moments definitely threw me more than I would have expected. The decision to focus on the charity as the play reached its conclusion didn’t sit quite right with me. Surely then would be the moment for to draw our minds back to the women at its heart, not to shift our eyes over to an external body. To clarify, that’s not to say that One25 is anything but imperative to the survival of dozens of people. Its work is clearly vital, but do they have a responsibility to step to one side?

In my opinion, Things We Do Not Know is good solely on the basis that it gets people talking and thinking about sex work, specifically street based. Perhaps the execution didn’t always work for me, but here the value is in the conversation.

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney